Thursday, 28 July 2016
Writer Stephen Said
We live our lives in an unprecedented time, in a uniquely complicated place. We face some of the greatest challenges never before experienced by humankind. We experience the commodified sexualisation of the self in the global market that late stage capitalism has created in which we live our lives in immediately public ways. Globally, we have unprecedented numbers of people on the move, fleeing violence, often as a result of military action Australia’s armed forces have participated in, creating unimaginable waves of human suffering seeking safety and asylum. Closer to home, we have what is being termed a national epidemic of domestic violence. Add to this Australia’s inability to face its racist past, the brutal concomitant effect our current casual racism has upon both Australia’s First Peoples and the latest arrivals, and we find a significantly complex multicultural and interconnected environment, one that our God loves deeply and one that we are called to make disciples in.
For the last twenty years, I have been involved in the personal and spiritual formation of Christian people, and the demographic has largely been what churches would describe as ‘young adult’. It is with great sorrow that I find, for many emerging adults, this time of their life is one filled with confusion and sadness. At best, Christian young adults are at a loss as to how to even articulate some of the anger, frustration, and grief they feel regarding what is occurring in and around them, because the communities that have been tasked with the responsibility to nurture their faith have little if anything to say in response to these great challenges. At worst, I find Christian young adults encounter an almost overwhelming experience of shame when they firstly become aware of their blindness, and they in turn realise that much of their inherited faith, rather than speaking to the issues with courage and compassion, is actually shaped by the broader culture's racism, egocentric hyper individualism, late stage capitalist over consumption, and violence towards women, and therefore contributes to the problems.
My sorrow only increases when I meet with youth and young adult pastors in Nicodemus moments when they share their reflections, often for the first time, that perhaps their ministry is actually all about creating disciples of popular culture rather than transformational followers of a radical Christ in an increasingly dystopian world. Their programs are characterised by a fearful individualistic ethnocentrism, placing them at the centre of a faith experience hell bent on individual growth and empowerment that ironically stunts the compassion and courage needed to transformationally engage the challenges of our day.
Paul scandalously calls us not to “be conformed to the systems, patterns, values, and practices of this world, rather be transformed by the transformation of your minds.” (Romans 12:2, my paraphrase) How does one even begin to understand the systems, patterns, values, and practices of this world when we and our communities of faith, and indeed our theology, are so deeply and unconsciously compromised by them before the task even begins?
One of the most encouraging movements that has occurred in my life is that of missiology transitioning from an awkward and fringe theological discipline in a minority of theological institutes in the 70’s and 80’s to a significant influence affecting most aspects of theological education in the present day. One can hardly attend a Sunday morning church service in an Evangelical church in Australia, or read a recent Christian book without encountering the word ‘missional’.
In one of the most pivotal works, and indeed arguably one of the catalysts for the explosion of missiological thinking in recent times, is David Bosch’s Transforming Mission. He attempts a triple entendre (if that is in fact is possible): the title “Transforming Mission” is designed to communicate three different yet interconnected phenomenon. The first is of course that the activity of mission results in transformation; transformed lives and transformed communities in which missionary endeavours are conducted. However, Bosch’s intent in writing Transforming Mission was in fact to transform the reader's preconceived and often flawed ideas of mission—the second entendre. The third, and what I consider to be the most significant of movements, is that those who engage in the work of mission are themselves transformed. Indeed, this notion is perhaps most insightfully expressed in the oft quoted words of the Aboriginal activist and educator Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
We have traditionally considered mission to be something that happens ‘over there’. Where? It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it doesn’t happen here. When the ‘over there’ missionary is freed from the burden to tell us what they have accomplished with our support, often we find that the person most transformed by the exercise is the missionary themselves. As an outsider and a minority in a strange place, the missionary is uniquely positioned to ‘need’ God and to be transformed by him in ways that are just not possible any other way. Bosch provocatively invites us into this kind of transformation experienced by the rare few, those who abandon the safety and security of church as a place of refuge for an experience of Church, in the words of the noted missiologist Emil Brunner, as an entity that “exists by mission just as fire exists by burning”.
Where does one begin? Where can we find the tools to see the systems, patterns, values, and practices of this world, often at work in our own lives and in our practice of what we call Christianity, let alone at work in our immediate and wider world? I would strongly suggest that it is again from the school of missiology that we might find a framework that helps us make the transition from a compromised and disengaged people to a people who are deeply shaped by the incarnational boots and all approach of the messiah.
Missiologist Paul Heibert offers a framework known as “critical contextualisation”. It is an approach that requires three interrelated and iterative phases. Firstly, a commitment to 1) suspend judgement. As we begin to become acquainted with our ethnocentrism and the ways in which it powerfully informs our culturally modified version of Christianity, we then 2) examine the biblical material as it relates to the subject at hand. The final step in the process, whilst continuing the first two steps, is to 3) build an interpretive bridge.
One of the most significant examples of Heibert’s framework in action is the book of Acts. For the first time in the history of the fledgling movement, the Spirit falls on Gentiles (Acts 10). The word used to describe the circumcised believers’ response to this phenomenon (v45) is often translated into English as the word, ‘amazed’ or ‘astonished’. However, the root Greek word clearly has strong elements of, and indeed could just as appropriately be translated into, the English word ‘confused’.
I don’t think we can understand just how offensive the possibility of the Gospel being open to non-circumcised people was to the original believers. Their ethnocentrism was such that the thought that God was seeking Gentiles would never have occurred to them. Nor can we fully comprehend the incredible courage it took Peter to state, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised in water.” (v47 NIV) What we often miss is the storm that is then unleashed as the Early Church needs to grapple with their ethnocentrism, rooted in their belief that somehow the circumcised Jews were ‘more special’ than the Gentiles whom God seemed eager to pour his Spirit out on.
What follows this event is Heibert’s framework writ large, as the Church struggles to come to terms with this shocking development. We find the community moving between the first of Heibert’s two points, attempting to suspend their judgement and searching the Biblical material. It is an ongoing iterative exercise until they strip all of what they initially believed were the entry requirements for new believers until they ‘build their interpretive bridge’, arriving at four guidelines: avoiding idolatry (often not what we think in modern times and indeed worthy of another article), avoiding sexual immorality, avoiding eating flesh from a living animal, and finally remembering the poor and working to ease their suffering.
I cannot stress enough how lengthy, profoundly difficult, and heatedly contentious this process was for the Early Church. However, once they engaged in the task of critical contextualisation, the restraints were removed and we saw an explosion in missiological activity unrivalled in the history of the Church.
This oft-overlooked event in the history of the Church has profound implications for us today. The Australian church is not in a healthy state. All denominations are either in statistical decline or have plateaued. When we honestly dig beneath the surface, any statistics showing an increase can largely if not totally be attributed by transfer growth from other dying congregations, or growth from migrant populations (again, another much longer conversation for another article). Statistics regarding youth and young adult ministries are even more dire.
In such a climate, the default defence is to ‘dig in’, looking to our defences and boundaries, articulating them more clearly and enforcing them more strenuously. Little do we realise that what we might actually be doing is reinforcing our ethnocentric systems, patterns, values, and practices of this world that we have uncritically adopted over time. We continue to fight the USA’s ‘culture wars’ of the 1960s.
What if what we require is a radical engagement and ‘going out to’? I know that for many, particularly those involved in congregational leadership, this can feel like a counter intuitive and risky gamble. But… what if?
I am encouraged that the team at Youth Vision have commissioned a series of articles that will provoke and enable a cohort of youth and young adult leaders to begin to seriously reflect upon the great issues of our day. I am encouraged that they invited me to consider how we can begin to do this. What is most encouraging is that by commissioning a collection of articles that will begin to provoke thought and open up dialogue, they have intuitively hit upon one of our earliest experiences as the Church, described in the book of Acts, that has been succinctly described by Heibert.
A dialogue cannot be initiated unless we take the task of listening seriously. In order to take the task of listening seriously, we need to suspend judgement. We need to curb our impulse to respond with what (we think) the Bible has to say and instead listen well. Besides, people are not stupid, we all just know when our conversation partner is simply waiting for us to stop talking so they can start. No one enjoys a conversation with such a person.
As we take the time to listen in a respectful dialogue, then we need to engage in the task of searching the Biblical material. Incidentally, it is because of this kind of disciplined practice a growing movement of Australian Christians has rediscovered long dormant Christian/Judaic traditions of solidarity and service to the poor, and God’s commitment right from the very beginning to the orphan, the widow, and the alien (or as we would say today, the person seeking asylum).
As we discover for the first time or possibly are confronted with our neglect for Biblical truths hidden in plain sight, we then consider what it means to be the people of God in this time and place, embodying what we have learned and becoming the answer to these challenges of our time. This is the final element in the process, and ironic in a David Bosch kind of way in that we do not ‘build’ an interpretive bridge, we in fact become an interpretive bridge.
If you are a youth or young adult leader, read these articles, then read them again. Continue to think about what you read and then in the spirit of Karl Barth’s Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other, let the conversation in your head unfold. Don’t stop there. Find other peers and colleagues, and continue. Invite your young people into that same experience. Enlist those in your congregations, often the gentle and quiet ones, to join in on the conversation. Entreat the Spirit that he might help you to suspend judgement and see the world in the way that God does. Go back to the life and teachings of Jesus, the parables he told, the racial and courageous openness and ‘going out’ spirit of the Early Church, and in communion and community seek to become the interpretive bridge that God uses to meet and minister to his broken world.
Come Holy Spirit.
Originally published in YVQ12: MESSY.
Stephen is a husband, a dad, and a foundation member of the Melbourne City Football Club. He works in the area of activism and social change as an educator, activist, speaker, writer, and community development worker. He is particularly interested in radical spirituality, incarnational community and the dynamics of personal and social transformation, particularly among the young adult demographic.
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